MOSCOW (AP) — Germany is trying to look united ahead of its World Cup opener after a photo put the team at the center of a national debate over culture and identity.
Mesut Ozil and Ilkay Gundogan, both of Turkish decent, posed with Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the Turkish president’s visit to Britain last month. Gundogan gave Erdogan a Manchester City shirt with the message “to my revered president.”
Politicians from the far-right AfD party questioned the players’ commitment to Germany, and Gundogan was jeered by some fans during last week’s friendly win over Saudi Arabia.
Ahead of Germany’s opening Group F game against Mexico on Friday, midfielder Julian Draxler defended his teammates.
German chancellor Angela Merkel has said Ilkay Gundogan and Mesut Ozil "belong to this national team" as the row over a photograph of them with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues:https://t.co/jqj4dW2viW #KweseESPN pic.twitter.com/ODI8yu1jBS
— Kwesé ESPN (@kwesesports) June 11, 2018
“[Reports] that Mesut Ozil was not up to his best or that Ilkay Gundogan was a bit subdued, that’s not true,” Draxler said, adding that Ozil is “probably our most creative player on the pitch and so I’m sure that Mesut Ozil will be there when we need him.”
No team has successfully defended the World Cup title since Brazil in 1962, and Germany coach Joachim Loew isn’t playing down the difficulty of his team’s task.
“It’s the most difficult feat, but the hunger and the ambition are definitely there,” Loew said, adding that France, Spain, Brazil and England are all stronger than in 2014.
“Germany is not the only country that continues to develop,” he said. “We actually have to ask ourselves where we could improve in our development because other countries … have really closed the gap.”
Loew was also eager to dispel any remaining doubts over the fitness of Manuel Neuer, who missed almost all of the club season with a fracture in his left foot.
“He looks self-confident in training, the Manuel Neuer that we’ve always known,” Loew said, adding that the Bayern Munich goalkeeper is “very calm, stable and he’s in a very good mood. You could see that in the weeks and month before that he was working to strengthen his stamina.”
Ahead of Sunday’s game against Mexico, Loew said Germany spent Friday concentrating on corners, free kicks and penalties to deal with a perception that set-pieces might be a weak point for the 2014 champions.
The team is a fusion of those who won the World Cup in 2014 — 10 players remain from that squad — and the young guns who lifted the Confederations Cup in Russia last year, beating Mexico 4-1 along the way.
“There are no two groups as such. We are very united,” Loew said. “The team has the experience to really be focused when it counts.”